Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Mosque hopping in Istanbul

So you have read my impressions of the Blue Mosque in one of my recent posts about Istanbul. It's the most famous, the most astonishing, but  also the most touristic of mosques in Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is for sure the most impressive of the mosques in the city, but it's also the busiest and the one where its purpose almost gets lost among the endless lines of tourists who queue, take off their shoes, ask for a scarf, take pictures, and so on.

Blue Mosque Courtyard
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque
Mosques in Istanbul are free to enter even for non-Muslim people. It's not like this everywhere: in Morocco, for example, it is not permitted due to a different interpretation of a sura in the Quran. During my five days in Istanbul I also visited Süleymaniye Mosque, and Rüstem Pasha Mosque, and every experience was unique. If from the outside Istanbul mosques look a bit underwhelming, with their grey colour and overall similar appearance, the grounds and the interior are always a surprise.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Glendalough, Ireland

Glendalough is one of my favourite day trips from Dublin. It is a village in County Wicklow, and the settlement of a very old monastery. There is a lot of history around the place, but Glendalough is above all about atmosphere. It has huge Celtic crosses, the ruins of the monastery, and the fascinating round tower. The setting is the great strength of Glendalough: green hills, greenery, and not one but two peaceful and scenic lakes (Glendalough means "valley between two lakes").

The Celtic cemetery in Glendalough

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

4 reasons why I am head over heels in love with Paris

The architecture blew me away. The impeccable style of the elegant buildings, the astonishing and perfect symmetries of Notre-Dame de Paris and Sainte Chapelle, as well as the general harmony of most of the city: in Paris it is hard to find buildings that clash one against the other. I loved the sloping roofs and the elegant railings in the buildings of central Paris, but also the stained windows of Gothic churches and the innovative architecture of some of the most famous museums, such as the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre.

Louvre seen from Tuileries Gardens, Paris
The Louvre building seen from the Tuileries gardens

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

An artsy itinerary around Campo Santo Stefano in Venice

Walking around Campo Santo Stefano is certainly relaxing. In this area of Venice there are interesting exhibitions and art galleries, as well as beautiful palazzi, and many curious things to discover. Many occasional tourists pass here on their way to St. Mark's Square, but they seem absent-minded, so focused on checking out Rialto Bridge and the Palazzo Ducale that they forget to take their noses out of their maps and guidebooks to admire the rest the city has to offer.

View from the Accademia Bridge
View from the Accademia Bridge (picture by Koalie on flickr)
The itinerary starts in Ponte dell'Accademia, which is one of the four bridges on the Grand Canal. It is full of locks because in the last few years lovers have found it a romantic place to demonstrate their love. The view is really a classic of Venetian sightseeing. The church of Santa Maria della Salute that you see from here was built in the 17the century to ask the virgin Mary to put an end to the plague that had spread in the city.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Bosphorous trip: what a disappointment!

There are times during your travels when you just feel you have to do something. It was the case for the Bosphorous trip I took during my 5-day stay in Istanbul: guidebooks and travel bloggers keep saying that no trip to Istanbul is complete without a trip to the Bosphorous. I must say that I agree that it helps to move away from Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu in order to understand the morphology of a city like Istanbul, but the Bosphorous trip kind of let me down.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it, but simply that I didn't connect with the sights as strongly as I did with the rest of the city.

view of Rumeli Hisari plus bridge
Rumeli Hisari and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge on the Bosphorous

First of all, I was worried about the touristy side of the Bosphorous trip. I had imagined a trip in a ferryboat used by locals, so I opted for the longer Bosphorous trip on the public ferry, which arrives almost at the end of the strait and then comes back, stopping at both the Anatolian and the European sides along the way. The other option is a private boat tour that goes closer to the shore but perhaps is more touristic. I was planning to make a couple of stops along the way and come back with a bus, like many guidebooks suggested, so I bought a one-way ticket (15TL).
First of all, I arrived at Eminönü, the same dock I used to go to Üsküdar on the Asian side of the city. The boat was waiting there for the passengers to board. Everybody was a tourist, to the point that they were selling audio guides. I bought one, but it was a mistake: it didn't work very well and I manually had to click on the building I saw from the boat, trying to guess basically.
The famous yalis, the wooden houses on the waterside, were nice but I couldn't understand which ones were fake and which ones were real, perhaps restored. I had imagined much bigger palaces on the shores, but then I am spoiled because I live in Venice. The only one I recognized from the boat was Dolmabahçe palace, in the neighbourhood of Beşiktaş. The landscape is pleasant, but nothing memorable.
Yali on the Bosphorous
Yali on the Bosphorous

No information was given on timetables, on what were the best attractions to stop at. We decided to visit Dolmabahçe Palace, because Beylerbeyi (an Imperial Ottan summer residence built in the 1860s) was closing early that day. I had planned to stop at Rumeli Hisari, a fortress on the European side, but after seeing it from the boat I concluded that it wasn't that special. I had hoped to see the famous pink flowers in bloom but I guess it was too late. Maybe I was wrong about Rumeli Hisari, who knows!
We got off at Sariyer. Nothing to do there: I had expected a quaint little town or a fishing village, but what I found was a nondescript town with some waterside restaurants. We ate in a big restaurant with a terrace on the Bosphorous. I think my friend and I ordered a simple kebab, but they were very slow to serve us. After lunch our adventure on the minibus started! Instead of a regular bus, some girls (who were very excited about practicing their English with us, which made me think that this part of the Bosphorous doesn't get many tourists) told us it was faster to take the minibus. So we boarded this private-looking minivan that drove at a crazy speed towards our next destination.
Why I was disappointed with Dolmabahçe Palace
When we finally arrived in front of the palace, we found a line at the closed gate. The ticket office was also closed, and there was nobody who could explain what was happening.  Nobody seemed to speak English, not the guards, and  strangely not the visitors lining for the palace. We assumed that the ticket office had closed for the day and that no more visitors were allowed in the palace, as a sign seemed to explain. Thanks to my persistence, we waited ten minutes  more in front of the closed gates, and somebody in the queue was kind enough to explain that the palace was free for the day, but that everybody had to wait for their turn to enter.

DOlmabahçe Palace 3
Looks closed, doesn't it?
After the guards inexplicably allowed a larger group to enter, we made it through the gates. What we saw was a park with a clock tower in a style that looked almost baroque or rococo. The visit to the actual palace is allowed only through a guided tour. There are guided tours in Turkish and English. We waited for a tour in English to start and we were finally allowed in the palace. Before entering, we had to wear some plastic bags over our shoes since most of the palace is carpeted. My feet immediately felt hot and sweaty, it was very uncomfortable and I couldn't wait for the tour to end.
Before entering Dolmabahçe
With bags on my feet

The tour guide spoke English in a funny way, and sometimes it was hard to understand what he was saying. Unfortunately, the tour was rushed (about 35-40 minutes), but there is no other way to see Dolmabahçe Palace. The palace itself is an interesting mixture of Ottoman architecture and Western influence,  with an evident penchant for the  rococo style, and lots of crystal. At times it felt tacky and showy, rather than opulent. Also, horribly dusty. On a more positive note, the crystal chandelier in the Ceremonial Hall is really impressive. The guide pointed out that it's not true that it was gifted by Queen Victoria, as it's written in some guidebooks, but the Sultans paid for all of it. As a matter of fact, the sultans fell into debt in order to build this palace.
We also visited the bedroom where Kamal Ataturk died, as well as the harem and the most luxurious rooms in the palace. Photos were not allowed inside, so this is the only one I managed to take. It is a photo of the chandelier in the entrance hall of the palace.

Dolmabahçe Palace 1
The only picture I managed to take inside the palace

Some parts of the palace were inexplicably bare, others luxuriously furnished and decorated. Overall, it gave me the impression of a decadent empire. As a matter of fact, Dolmabahçe Palace was built in  the middle of the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire was losing its grip. It remained the residence of the Ottoman Sultans until the end of the Caliphate in the 1920s, when it became the summer presidential residence of the republic. This is why Ataturk died here, in 1938.
Overall, it wasn't as mind-blowing as Topkapi Palace, but since I didn't pay the entrance fee I cannot complain. On a normal day I think you'd pay 40 TL (€14,60/$19,60) for a joint ticket (Salamlik + Harem), it's way too much. I'd pay about half for that visit.
Dolmabahçe Palace 2
Dolmabahçe Palace

The silver lining is that I learned something more about Turkish history, another piece of the puzzle let's call it. I think it's important to see Dolmabahçe Palace  in order to understand the evolution of Turkish taste. Maybe just don't expect to like it madly!

Have you got any suggestions for a more satisfying Bosphorous trip? Were you luckier than me during your trip?

Friday, 29 November 2013

Four affordable and exciting meals in Paris

I knew that eating in Paris would be a heavenly experience, but I was worried that it would be a nightmare for my wallet. Instead, I found out that eating out in Paris is not particularly expensive for European standards, especially if you choose a menu instead of ordering à la carte. Of course you should avoid rushing inside the first restaurant you see, and as in most other touristic places, it's better to read the menu before entering. Here are four places I discovered during my recent trip to la ville lumière. Some of them don't serve traditional French food at all, but as you probably know  in Paris it's almost easier to find a Japanese restaurant than a traditional bistro. My French friends, for example, seemed to have an endless list of ethnic restaurants to try.

1) Café Divan  (Rue de la Roquette)

I discovered this place thanks to my French friends, who have been living in Paris for a couple of years, and knew the neighbourhood quite well. It is close to Place de la Bastille, in a road full of restaurants and pubs called Rue de la Roquette. The menu here is not particularly French: salads, burgers and bagels have the upper hand on poulet roti and soupe d'onion. I have been dreaming about bagels since my last visit to London (I know a place in Columbia Road), but the only place I know that serves them in Italy is in Florence, which I haven't visited in almost one year!  My favourite bagel is the classic one, with salmon and cream cheese. The restaurant was full and there was a very nice atmosphere, with music playing and a bustle of people talking and sampling the gorgeous food.

Bagel in Rue de la Roquette
Bagel at Café Divan

2) L'As du Fallafel (Rue de Rosiers)

This legendary place is recommended by Lonely Planet and by various bloggers, as well as being rumoured to be one of Lenny Kravitz's favourite restaurants in Paris (but then, dozens of places are said to be his favourite in the city he loves so much!). It is located in Rue des Rosiers, a nice and quaint street in the heart of the Pletlz, the Jewish quartier, in the Marais. There is a long queue for lunch, but if you order take-away at the the hole-in-the-wall (à emporter in French) the service is very fast. The falafel sandwich cost me only €5.5 and it was huge as well as delicious. The felafels were to die for, and so were the aubergines and the sauces they generously put in it. I wouldn't hesitate to come back if I found myself in the area again.
L'as du Falafel, Rue des Rosiers, Paris
Crowd in front of L'As du Fallafel

3) Café des Deux Moulins (Rue Lepic)

This is the café/brasserie where Amélie Poulain works in the movie. It is in Montmartre, in rue Lepic, very close to the Moulin Rouge. It is not as touristic as you may think, and it is only slightly more expensive than other places nearby. A formule, which in Paris means you can choose main dish + appetizer or main dish + dessert, comes at €14.90. As it often happens in Paris, I ordered something with a very long name, and what arrived was a pork steak with roasted potatoes. They have a poster of Amélie signed by Audrey Tautou, and of course they serve the famous crème brulée. Clients love to take pictures of themselves in front of the poster!

Café des Deux Moulins, Paris
The Amélie poster

4) Guibine (rue Saint-Anne)

This Korean restaurant is perfect for a break from your long visit to the Louvre. It is located in rue Saint-Anne, half-way between Musée du Louvre and Opéra. This street, once at the heart of gay Paris, is now famous for its Japanese and Korean restaurants. Guibine offers delicious barbecued beef served with plenty of little Korean-style side dishes like the infamous and spicy kimchi, bean sprouts, algae, papaya and so on, washed down with the ubiquitous rice of course. The express menu adds their mouth-watering dumplings as an entrée, all for €12.90. You also get a coffee or an ice-cream at the end of the meal. Your stomach will be ready for another couple of hours at the Louvre at the end of the hearty meal!


Rue Sainte Anne
Korean bakery in Rue Saint-Anne

Monday, 25 November 2013

A visit to the Opéra Garnier in Paris

I'd like to start my posts on my recent trip to Paris with one of the least obvious among my visits, that to the fascinating Palais Garnier, also known as the Opéra. Paris has two opera houses, the other one being Opéra Bastille, but this is the most interesting from a historical and artistic point of view. It is situated at the end of Avenue de l'Opéra (which starts outside the Louvre), and there is a special metro station dedicated to it, called Opéra. It is curious that the venue is now used primarily for ballet, rather than for opera, for which it was expressly designed in the 19th century.

Palais Garnier, Paris
The opera house seen from the busy street in front of it

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

My 3 favourite cities in Spain

Spain is one of my favourite countries in Europe: I have been three times so far and I can't wait to go back. The reasons why I like Spain are simple: friendly people, excellent food and lots of history, not to mention interesting sights. I'm particularly in love with tapas and with the Moorish architecture of the south of Spain, but I also enjoy Gaudí, sangria and speaking Spanish! Here are my favourite cities in Spain. I hope to add more in the future: I still haven't been to Granada or the Basque Country.

1) Barcelona

It might seem obvious to point it out but the main reason why Barcelona is on this list is its vibrant life. Museums, first-rate art venues, mind-blowing architecture, an excellent nightlife and good food, Barcelona has it all.

If there is an artist that has shaped Barcelona, this is Antoni Gaudi, the architect who designed the Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, Casa Battló and other sights in the city. His colourful and inventive style, which is inspired by the form of the natural world, is everywhere in Barcelona. It's really interesting to visit these architectural wonders: just look at the division between the window on the bottom of this picture: they are made to look like human bones!

Casa Battlò, Barcelona
Casa Battló, restored by Gaudí

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The joy of visiting Istanbul's bazaars

Grand Bazaar
One of the joys of visiting Istanbul is to get lost in the maze of the Grand Bazaar. I had heard lots of stories about this bazaar, about how men try to lure you into buying their merchandise, about how you have to bargain for everything you want unless you want to pay an exorbitant price, and how you are sometimes offered cups of tea during the negotiation.

If you look at the inscription on the entrance gates - Kapali çarşi is Turkish for "covered bazaar" - you'll see the date of inception, 1461. The Grand Bazaar was built before Christopher Columbus discovered America, just to give you an idea! At the apex of the Ottoman Empire, it was considered unrivalled in Europe for the quality and the wide range of goods available.
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
One of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The holy trinity of Istanbul: the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia

I will start my insights on three of Istanbul must-sees with a tip: spread these visits on three separate days, one for each day, and leave the rest of the time for other things: the Basilica Cistern, the Spice Bazaar or Süleymaniye Mosque.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is the most famous mosque in Istanbul and its silhouette is almost as recognizable as that of the Tour Eiffel in Paris. It is huge: you can spend plenty of time sitting in the main courtyard, reading a book or watching the people go by. Of course before entering you have to take off your shoes and, if you are a woman, cover your head. The entrance is free of charge, but during prayer time the mosque is closed to the public.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The beautiful Blue Mosque, the most important mosque of Istanbul

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Üsküdar: exploring the Asian side of Istanbul

No visit to Istanbul is complete without a ferry ride to the Asian side. For my first escape into Asia, I chose the neighbourhood of Üsküdar, just a short journey from Eminönü, the ferry dock near the Galata Bridge (3TL, €1,10). The ferryboat was a bit smelly and old, but it gave me an impression of how Turkey must have been until a few years ago. I must confess that this part of Istanbul, almost completely devoid of tourists, stole my heart.

flower vendor in Uskudar
Flower vendor near the ferry dock

Friday, 25 October 2013

Istanbul: my best meals there (and the food scams)

I had eaten Turkish food before, in this or that other restaurant during the year and a half that I lived in London. It was good food, prepared simply, but healthy and fulfilling, but I knew in Istanbul there were going to be many other options. I have no idea if the food I tried in Istanbul was genuinely Turkish or a mish-mash of various influences, but it was certainly very tasty and inexpensive.

Spices in Arasta Bazaar, Istanbul
Spice delight

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The magic of Istanbul

Where to begin with Istanbul? Well, I was trying to organize a trip outside of Europe for a while now, but both times I was not lucky and I ended up staying at home. I didn't know much about Istanbul before starting to research it, but because I was alone I wanted to go to a safe city, one that I could feel comfortable wandering alone, but that at the same time had a non-European feeling to it. I settled on Istanbul, a city that conflates Western and Eastern cultures in interesting ways.

Istanbul was the capital of many different empires - most notably the Byzantine  and the Ottoman empire - and it went by different names: Byzantium, Costantinople and now Istanbul. With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Istanbul has been one of the most important cities in European history. Sacked during the Fourth Crusade of 1202-04 because of trickster Venetians who saw it as a rival city, it was then probably the largest and most sophisticated city in the world.  It was conquered  in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II, and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire controlled much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, so the influence of this city is felt in a considerable portion of the world. The  empire collapsed only after the First World War, and now Turkey is ironically fighting its battle to enter the European Union.  
Blue Mosque, Istanbul
First glimpse of the main square of Sultanahmet

Friday, 18 October 2013

Reading in Venice: Libreria Acqua Alta

Unfortunately, in Venice bookshops are closing. As it is a city geared for tourism with fewer residents left every year, bookshops have a hard time. Moreover, with all the alternative ways you can get your hands on a book, people don't buy many books from small shops.
In this post I would like to write about a very peculiar bookshop that you might find while wandering the streets of Venice. It is called "Acqua Alta", like the famous periodical tides that flood the Venetian lagoon. The bookshop is located  in Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, near the eponymous square, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, in the sestiere of Castello.

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
The bookshop from outside

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Athens (second part)

So what do you do in Athens once you have seen the Acropolis? Well, first of all there are tons of other ruins all around it, usually in very scenic locations, among pines or with beautiful vistas over the city.

Athens, view of the Parthenon from the Agora
View of the Acropolis from the Agora

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Athens (first part)

When I was planning this trip I was not sure if going to Athens was a good or a bad idea. It was going to be a hassle to get there from the Cycladic islands, and everybody was telling me that Athens is nothing special: too much traffic and pollution, horribly hot and not many sights. Except for the Acropolis. About that I was told amazing things, and I must admit that it didn't fail to meet my expectations.
Athens, the Parthenon
One of my favourite shots of the Parthenon

Monday, 30 September 2013

Stonehenge vs. Ring of Brodgar

Have you ever been let down by a much-hyped tourist attraction? I'm asking because I was a bit disappointed when last summer I visited Stonehenge on my way to Bath.
There were literally dozens of tour buses parking in the proximity of the ring, which incidentally is smaller than I expected. Another thing that put me off is that you are not allowed to walk within the ring, only around it at a safe distance. I can understand why this is, but add a souvenir shop, the chattering teenagers on a school trip and the entrance fee (8£), and the mysterious and magical atmosphere that it should emanate is almost ruined. I say almost, because you can still perceive bits and pieces of good vibes here and there. Among other things, Stonehenge is set among rolling hills, with nothing but green grass in sight.
Stonehenge, England
Stonehenge, England

Friday, 27 September 2013

Battling with the crowds in Santorini

Santorini is very touristic. While in early June when I visited Crete was quiet, Santorini was already full of tour groups.  

Santorini cruises
Four cruises at the same time in Santorini
Is it possible to avoid the hordes of tourists getting off the cruise ships for the day? Well, there is nothing to do about Thira, it will always be crowded, and the atmospheric village of Oia at sunset and dinner time is also a nightmare. In spite of that, there are a few things you can do to make your stay less exasperating.

Greek masks, Thira,
Greek masks for sell in Fira

First of all, you can try to find accommodation outside of Fira and Oia in order to discover the quiet corners of the island. My accommodation was in a hostel/B&B called Caveland,  located in the quiet yet charming village of Karterados. Caveland is a former winery dating back to the 18th century, and the rooms and dormitories are the cells where the wine was kept. That is why the rooms look like caves. There is even a volcanic rock that springs out of the bathtub. I loved  that place! For only 17€ per night I got a super nice room (I was the only one in the dormitory!), free breakfast and wi-fi, swimming pool, and a big shaded courtyard to relax or read a book. They also have double rooms with either shared or ensuite bathrooms.

The double room in Caveland, Santorini
The cosy double room with shared bathroom next to my dormitory

Bath tub, Caveland, Santorini
Bath tub, Caveland, Santorini

The swimming pool in Caveland, Santorini
What you can get for 17€ in Santorini

Grounds, Caveland, Santorini
A corner of the courtyard

The only drawback is that Karterados is 20-25 minutes walking from the main town in Santorini, Fira. You can take one of the buses that pass through Karterados  en route to different areas of the island (€1,50-€1,80), although they are not very frequent. In alternative, ask for a taxi, or do as I did: walk! Of course you can also rent a bike, or a moped. There are yoga classes available at Caveland too, which I find pretty cool. Overall, Caveland is a really good deal, and it allows you to see a different part of the island.

The village of Karterados is somehow less touristy, the houses are more spaced out, and life runs quiet. If you are not looking for a luxury room overlooking the caldera this is the place for you. I'm sure there are more of these spots on the island, you just have to find them.

Karterados, Santorini

A church in quiet Karterados
Another thing you can do is to go to Oia in the early afternoon or even in the morning to explore its cobbled streets and its vistas when there aren't many people. Also enjoy the sunset from there of course. I can't lie: the sunset in Oia was the most beautiful I've ever seen, but it wasn't the experience I had expected. Oia gets packed with people, to the point that every cobbled street with a view of the descending arch of the sun, and every bar or restaurant with a sea view was full of people waiting with their camera in hand. This began 2 or even 3 hours before the actual sunset.

people watching sunset, Santorini
Crowded sunset in Oia
Because I was too restless to sit down and wait in the same spot for two hours, when the sunset started I always had someone's head in front of my camera lenses and it was really hard to take nice shots. Do you think that people step aside just for a moment to let you take a good picture? Not at all.

Santorini Sunset 2
Sunset in Santorini

Santorini sunset 3
Finally a good shot!

In summary, if you are in Santorini do enjoy the sunset in Oia, but make sure to go to there at another time of the day too. If you have more days, think about changing the location for your second sunset: I'm sure that there are other beautiful and less crowded spots where you can see it.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The sheer beauty of Santorini

Santorini has that kind of beauty that blinds you: everything is photogenic, from the blue domes of the characteristic churches  to the flowers hanging from the balconies, from the omnipresent trellises to the churches with multiple bells, not to mention the white-washed houses crammed one against the other. These white "cubist houses" overhanging an impossibly blue sea are the trademark of the Greek islands. Even though images of Santorini are on every poster advertising holidays in Greece, to wander its cobbled streets that endlessly go uphill and downhill offering breath-taking vistas in every corner is quite another thing.


Friday, 20 September 2013

My 5 favourite places to eat something in Venice

Many people who have visited Venice complain that the food there is expensive and dull. It is not, if you follow a few rules:
First of all, get away from the area around Saint Mark's Square: the dinner will cost you an arm and a leg. The restaurants overlooking the canal near Rialto Bridge are also very touristic. Basically, all restaurants with touts inviting you in are to be avoided, especially near St. Mark's Square and Strada Nuova. Some of them will even serve you ready meals! Finally, don't order pizza in Venice: because of security reasons wooden ovens are prohibited in the city, so it's really difficult to find a good pizza place in Venice. Just wait for the next Italian town in your itinerary, and enjoy the fish Venice has to offer!
And now, my five favourite places to eat something in Venice, in random order:

1) Impronta Café (Dorsoduro 3815)

Located in the university area, this lounge bar serves pasta, club sandwiches, meat and fish, with a menu that changes daily. For lunch during the week the atmosphere is more  informal, but for dinner and on the weekends expect a refined menu and slightly higher prices. Always affordable anyway. It is one of my favourite places in Venice! Thanks to its big windows you can watch the people go by as you eat.
Chef's dish @ Impronta Cafe
Chef's dish in Impronta Café. Credits: love_yellow

2) Osteria Alla Bifora (Campo Santa Margherita, Dorsoduro 2930)

This stylish and atmospheric bar offers delicious Venetian chiceti (appetizers, similar to Spanish tapas), like tartine with baccalà mantecato (creamed salted codfish) and polpette di carne o di verdure (meatballs and veggie balls). It has also good wines, which you can sip at the wooden candle-lit tables. It is located in one of the most lively squares in Venice, Campo Santa Margherita. It is where students meet in the evening, drinking endless aperol spritz!

Osteria alla Bifora

Osteria alla bifora, Venice
Nice atmosphere at Osteria alla Bifora

3) Al Timon, Cannaregio (Fondamenta dei Ormesini, Cannaregio 2754 )
Located in one of my favourite parts of Venice, the quiet Fondamenta dei Ormesini in Cannaregio, this bar is one of the places where young locals like to hang out in the summer. There is a boat berthed in front of the bar where you can sit with your drink. If you want to eat, enjoy the wide variety of cicheti (1€ each) or order a delicious meat plate. 
just a few Cicheti, Al Timon, Venezia
Just a few cicheti, Al Timon

4) Cantina Do Spade (San Polo, 859)

This place, located near Rialto Bridge, probably has the best fried calamari in town. Come here for fish, or enjoy a drink with your friends sitting outside on the bench, in true Venetian style. The polpette with spianata calabra I tried the other night are also amazing!

bacaro Cantina Do Spade, Venice
Credits: nicole_yoshida

5) Osteria Al Portego (Castello San Lio, 6014)

You can either sit down and enjoy a proper meal at the table, or order some cicheti and a glass of wine and eat it in the courtyard outside this place, tucked behind the Malibran Theatre, the area where the house of Marco Polo is supposed to be. Try the crocchette di patate (potato croquettes) or the mozzarelline fritte (small fried mozzarellas on a stick).
Osteria Al Portego, Venezia
Osteria al Portego

Monday, 16 September 2013

"Travel Your Way" Photo Competition

Rhino Car Hire has launched an interesting photo competition, and I have been invited to participate by Dana from Time Travel Plans. The prize are £1,000 for the overall winner, and a SONY Nex-3N Compact Camera System worth £379 for every category winner. 
Travel bloggers are invited to submit their photos of their travels on different means of transport. Not that I want to compete with "real" photographers, but I thought browsing through my old photographs would be both interesting and funny!
By road
I was on a road trip with my parents through the lakes of Northern Italy. We stopped in Omegna, on the northern tip of Lake d'Orta, a small yet lovely lake in Piedmont, when we spotted this car, parked in front of a driving school. How would it be to take a road trip on this jewel of a car?

Taken at Omegna, Lago D'Orta
Old 'cinquecento' parked in Omegna, Lake d'Orta

By air

I was at Girona airport after a trip to Barcelona, and I snapped this picture from the big window in the waiting hall. I call it "The Power of Ryanair".

The Power of Ryanair
The Power of Ryanair. Girona, Spain

By sea

This one is more about travelling by water, but I realized I hadn't posted this picture. Slovenia is a country for lovers of outdoor activities. In Lake Bohinj you can hike from one side to the other, or you can rent a canoe and paddle your way to the next beach.

Lonely canoeing in Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

By Rail

I travel by train a lot, but I struggled to find a good picture of my journeys on the railways of Europe and beyond. Then I had an illumination: the train is not the only way to travel on rails! And this is when I remembered about this picture taken last May in Istanbul. I was a bit bored and disappointed by Istiklal Caddesi: to me it looked like any other big commercial street. It could have been in any European city. Then I heard the ring of the tram, and I was suddenly ecstatic about Istiklal Caddesi. I travelled with the tram a lot while in Istanbul, and it is a safe and easy way to move around the city.

A tram in Istiklal Caddesi
Tram and veiled woman in Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul

Now it's time to nominate five other bloggers I follow and invite them to participate in this photo competition: Bon Voyage, Lauren, Travelling Book Junkie, abitofculture, You Should Go too! and Danik the Explorer.

Happy travels everyone! 

Monday, 9 September 2013

Palace of Knossos -- a ruins-geek galore

Visiting Knossos was the highlight of my trip to Crete: I had dreamed about visiting the palace of King Minos since I don't remember when. Suspended between legend and history, this is where the king of the Minoans was said to keep the Minotaur, a monster half human and half bull. It was killed by Theseus in the myth, with the help of the king's daughter, Ariadne, who had a crush on him. It is possible that the maze-like structure of the palace led to the creation of the myth of the labyrinth, built by Daedalus for King Minos, who also imprisoned the architect so he would not reveal its secrets.
Knossos, Crete
Ruins of Knossos

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Chania and Heraklion: a mixed heritage.


Chances are that you have never heard of Chania. It is a quaint little town, worth at least a couple of hours of your time if you are in the west of Crete. There are cheap Ryanair flights from many European destinations: I paid mine only 20€! Chania has a harbour built by the Venetians in the 14th century, complete with breakwater, fortresses, bastions now half in ruins, and a pretty lighthouse. You can walk all around the area, and admire the port, then relax and look at the blue sea.

Lighthouse in Chania, Crete
The lighthouse in Chania

Ruins of bastion, Chania
Bastion in Chania

While I was wandering around the harbour area, I noticed a rose-domed construction with several smaller domes at its sides that looked rather incongruous. A free painting exhibition was being held there, but  my guidebook said that the building used to be a mosque, the Mosque of the Janissaries to be precise. Now, if you have been to Istanbul you will maybe remember who the Janissaries were: soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, originally used as bodyguards for the sultan and later stationed in the occupied territories to make sure that the Ottoman laws were enforced. As a matter fact, Crete was under Turkish rule from half of the seventeenth century until 1898.

Chania, waterfront
The waterfront of Chania with the mosque

The streets around the harbour are full of touristy restaurants and shops with the kind of souvenirs that you can find in any seaside resort: shells, model ships, and various other knick-knacks. More interesting, in my opinion, are the streets further away from the harbour, with virtually no tourists in sight. The church of Aghios Nikolaos, tucked in a lateral square, particularly surprised me, because it has both a clock tower and a minaret! Built in 1320 by Dominican monks as part of a monastery, it was converted into the main mosque of the town when the Turks occupied Greece, hence the minaret. Finally, in 1918 it was reconverted and it is now a Greek orthodox church dedicated to the protector of sailors.
Church of Agios Nikolaus, Chania, Crete
Church of Agios Nikolaos

It was also the first time that I entered a Greek orthodox church. They are usually darker than Catholic churches, with golden ornaments and candles in a sandbox (we usually have individual metal sockets in Italian churches).

Candles in a sandbox, Santorini, Greece
Candles in a sandbox, Santorini
As you can see from the pictures, it was cloudy and spitting on and off in Chania the day I visited. I woke up late because I had a late night with some couchsurfers and their friends, plus I stopped for a longish breakfast with a lovely Polish couple I had met. I wished I had checked off more items from my list in Chania, but soon it was time to catch my bus to Heraklion, for the second leg of my trip.


After crossing all the island in length with the bus (€13,80, 2h 45min), I finally arrived in Heraklion (Heracles' city). Guidebooks and Cretans alike will tell you that there is nothing special about this town, the biggest of the island. They will direct you to beaches and other smaller towns in the area, instead. As I wandered around the streets of Heraklion, however, I discovered a pleasant town with a well-groomed seafront, squares with nice cafés and sophisticated restaurants, and some interesting monuments documenting the past of the island.
Harbour, Heraklion
Looking out at the sea from the fortifications

Unfortunately, when I was there both the Archeological Museum and the Historical museum where closed, and the Koulés, which is the square fortress you see at the end of the promenade in the pictures, was under restoration. This fortress, also called Rocca al Mare, was built by the Venetians in the early 13th century to defend the city, then part of the Serenissima. It is built in that kind of architectural style that you can see in other "Venetian" towns in the Adriatic and in the Mediterranean Sea, with the lion of St. Mark clearly visible. In Heraklion there are many other remainders of the Serenissima, for instance the Morosini Fountain, so called after an important  17th-century Captain-General of the Venetian army who during the siege of Candia (the Venetian name of the town) managed to keep the city for 23 years from the Turkish invasion. He later became doge of Venice, and incidentally he is the one who bombed the Parthenon and called it "a good shot".

Morosini Fountain, Heraklion
Morosini Fountain
In spite of past dominations, Heraklion maintains its own cultural identity: it is a very Greek and Cretan town. Here I had the best meal of my Greek trip, and I listened to traditional Cretan music in a local taverna with my couchsurfer and his friends.

The appeal of Heraklion lies nonetheless in the fact that it is so close to the ruins of Knossos palace. Wait for it in my next post!
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